During an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women at the UN Human Rights Council, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)’s head of delegation, Elizabeth O’Casey, called on African states to comply with their international obligations on abortion.
In 2003, the African Union signed the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women (known as the Maputo Protocol), which, amongst other rights guarantees the right to abortion if a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk from pregnancy.
Significantly, it is the first time such a provision has been included in an international or regional human rights instrument – and it is sorely needed; 12 states still outlaw abortion in all circumstances in Africa and four million women per year undergo unsafe illegal abortions on the continent. The IHEU called on the Human Rights Council to put pressure on those states who have yet to comply with their obligations under the Maputo Protocol with reference to abortion, urging them to cease violating the rights of women.
We also highlighted the pernicious role of American Evangelist groups on the continent who spread intimidation against women seeking abortions and who look to influence legislation to the detriment of the reproductive rights of women. Such groups are also waging an aggressive campaign against the rights of LGBT people in states across Africa.
Our statement follows in full below:
International Humanist and Ethical Union
United Nations Human Rights Council, 29th Session (15th June – 3rd July 2015)
Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women
The IHEU would like to thank the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women for her informative and detailed report. We would like to concentrate specifically on the Maputo Protocol (African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women) and its seminal provisions on medical abortion. The sanctioning of abortions in cases where, for example, continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother is, as Professor Manjoo notes, “crucial, considering the high maternal mortality rates linked to the practice of unsafe abortions.”
The provisions are notable and represent progress given that every year, approximately 4 million unsafe abortions are conducted in Africa, with about 40% of women undergoing such abortions dying as a result.
[Notably, in South Africa just two years after abortion became legal, the number of deaths among pregnant women who underwent the procedure reportedly fell by 90%.]
Despite this, of the 46 signatories of the Protocol, 12 still outlaw abortion altogether, with a further seven allowing it only in cases where a woman’s life is at risk from the pregnancy. As noted by the Special Rapporteur, “cultural, religious and other moral arguments against the termination of pregnancies […] challenge the effective realization of this right.”
One of these forces is US Christian evangelical groups attempting a “cultural colonisation” of Africa and opening offices to promote attacks on abortion, sexual, reproductive rights, population control and homosexuality.
In some countries a climate of intimidation exists where women seeking abortions are reported to the police by members of groups like the Council of Churches or Human Life International.
In attacking “the effective realization of this right” and facilitating intimidation and religious and cultural outrage against women seeking abortions, a number of African states are engendering a climate of violence against women; they are condemning them to dangerous unofficial abortion, or to continuing a pregnancy that endangers their health.
Violence against women is a human rights violation. We call on this Council to urge those states who have signed the Maputo Protocol, a legally binding human rights instrument, to fulfil their obligations and cease violating the rights of women.